Event operations manager, University of Florida Performing Arts

Zakiya Smith-Dore is an event operations manager with University of Florida Performing Arts. She’s held that position since April 2017. Smith-Dore is a true-blue Florida Gator, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the SEC school. Smith-Dore started working at the Stephen O’Connell Center on campus as an undergraduate. Prior to her current role, she served as a changeover supervisor at the 10,133-seat arena for about four years. Former NBA arena manager Sporty Jeralds says she’s a “young, fast-rising star in our business.” Smith-Dore is a Certified Venues Professional and active with the International Association of Venue Managers, where she represents the state of Florida and is vice chair of the trade group’s University Venues Committee. She led research and co-authored IAVM’s pandemic recovery guide and received its 2020 Chairman’s Citation.

Smith-Dore spoke with VenuesNow reporter James Zoltak about how she went from studying to be a brain surgeon to working in public assembly.

What is your background and how did you get started in the venues industry? 
I was helping manage local theaters, helping with concerts and events, that sort of thing, as early as age 12. I can recall for my high school band I was the colonel of logistics. They created this title so I could help them with coordinating travel to different parts of the state of Florida. So, a lot of the industry-type work that I do was implanted at a young age, but I had no idea that it was a career choice. I fully anticipated most of my life that I was going to be a doctor. Specifically, I thought I was going to be a neurosurgeon. So when I got to college, studying pre-med, and needed some extra cash, someone knew that I had done all this different work, working events as a kid and said if you want to make some money at the arena, they’ll actually pay you to do the kind of work you used to do back home. And not only that if you are looking at training on how to do events on a larger scale, they also have a lot of training opportunities. So, I thought, ‘OK, sure.’ This is a great way to make extra money and somewhere along the line I realized I was happier doing the event-type work than I was studying biology and chemistry. It’s a long story, but I like to think the seeds of venue management and event management were planted in me at a young age and working at the arena helped blossom into the career that I have today.

How did you get involved in doing this kind of work at such a young age? 
It was at the church I was attending. It’s one of those, you see a need, you fill a need. I’ve always been that kind of person. If I can serve, if I can give back, then that’s what I’ll do. It even makes it better when it’s something that’s interesting. The church needed someone to help out with the (video) cameras. So, I started out helping with the cameras and then they were like, ‘Oh, you’re really good at technology,’ me being one of the few young people in the congregation. Then it was, ‘Can you help us with the sound equipment? Can you help us with the lighting equipment?’ And before I knew it people said, ‘Let’s add more. Let’s train her on this. Let’s train her on that.’ And then word got out and I started doing things for the community, for the schools that I attended and it was just always great to have people who saw the talent that I had at the time and were willing to further develop it by training me in different areas.

Who are some of the people who have served as mentors to you?
My earliest industry mentors, I can’t credit them enough: (O’Connell Center Director) Lynda Reinhart and (Associate Director) Renee Musson. Both of them, they kind of saw me working in the arena and somewhere along the line said, ‘You have a knack for this. You can really go somewhere with this.’ They took me under their wing and were always very kind to answer any questions I had (and) I’m one of those people that’s inquisitive. I’m always asking questions. It was great to have people that were willing to sit down and tell me about the business and how they fell into the industry. I was promoted to changeover supervisor within the O’Connell Center soon after being hired there. So in addition to the training opportunities as a supervisor, they would let me cross-train in other divisions and have opportunities to shadow them and not just them, but other managers within the facility, so they’re definitely credited as my top two mentors, if I had to rank them. But in more recent times I’ve added on mentors like Adina Erwin (recently hired as general manager of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center), Sporty Jeralds (senior clinical instructor in the Sports and Entertainment Management Department at the University of South Carolina) and even (venue operations consultant) Russ Simons has kind of been a mentor to me. He doesn’t know it yet, but he definitely taught me a lot, especially during this COVID time. 

Have you taken on the mantle of being a mentor to others?
Yes. With IAVM, they have the Mentor Connect program and I’ve had the privilege of mentoring Ryan Briones. He’s with Chase Center now; and Kelly Biscopink, general manager with the Aronoff Center for the Arts in Cincinnati. Ultimately, I’ve had a number of people that have come to me for advice throughout my short time in the industry. I have a lot of people that have reached out and asked questions about how they can succeed in the industry and anybody that comes to me for advice will receive advice. I’m always happy to help whoever needs it.

What were typical days like for you pre-COVID?
We’re venue managers. There is no typical day. I’m the direct manager of (Baughman Center), our auxiliary venue for the UF Performing Arts Department, so a lot of my job entailed contracting events, managing operations for the venue and managing staff. A lot of paperwork and administrative duties but also cultivating clients, cultivating leadership within my employee pool. I also provide event management support for the main theater hall, which is 1,700-seat Phillips Center with a black box (event space) attached to it. Depending on how busy we are, I may be switching from the auxiliary venue to the main hall and managing shows there. There’s a lot of pivoting, a lot of different audiences. It depends on the day.

What do you like best about your job?
It’s the same reason why I fell into the industry. l love being able to help people and specifically I love being able to help people bring their events to life. In a normal year, I’m typically responsible for helping over 120 events come to life. That’s one of the best parts of my job, and interacting with the diverse types of clients we have. It keeps me on my toes and it keeps me engaged. I love it.  

What parts of your education and experience prepared you for where you are career wise and where you are headed? 
I can look back on some of those earlier times in high school. Of course, I’m not too far away from when I was in high school so I can still remember them, but I hope I never forget the opportunities that my music instructors and some of my teachers and campus administrators invested in me that allowed me to lead in different aspects. My senior year of high school, our head choir director got ill and had to take a leave of absence. It was unexpected and caught everybody by surprise, but because she had entrusted me with so many different responsibilities throughout the years, I had the tools to successfully lead our music department in her absence. And it wasn’t just, here’s some kid who’s helping out the substitute teacher. I actually had an active role in leading our music department. I was the only student I know so far to have directed a play (‘Beauty and the Beast’) for our high school. I helped teach theater classes. I helped teach a few ensemble choirs. You name it, I did it that year. I go back to my hometown and sometimes people say, ‘Hey, you’re that kid who saved the music department from failing.’ I take great pride in that, but if it weren’t for having that opportunity to step up and take charge I wouldn’t know how to manage the theater that I’m currently in and I certainly wouldn’t have been as successful with the leadership opportunities I’ve had since becoming a real adult. A lot of what I did that year has set the tone for how I’ve been able to lead my peers, even in times of crisis like right now with COVID.

Do you ever think about directing again?
It’s so funny because when I first started my full-time job search I was in line for an internship and had the choice of the athletic department or working with the performing arts and in my mind I fully said, I am never working in the theater again because of the experiences from high school. Ultimately, I love the venue side of things and I don’t think I’ll ever try to get back on a stage. But it served its purpose.

Do you feel that the venues industry in general and the performing arts center segment in particular do a good job of bringing in a diverse cross section of people?
I’ve been working with my director and a group called Major University Presenters. Prior to my work with that organization, I fully thought we were doing a great job of being diverse and bringing together all types of people, but what I’m learning in more recent times, especially with what’s going on in the world right now, is a lot of my perceptions on diversity and who and how we are bringing (people) together were a little bit off from the rest of the world and the industry. I think we are doing a better job and we are continuing to evolve the who and how of who we are bringing into our facility and in our venue industry, but there is always room for improvement.

Any ideas on how to improve the pipeline to leadership positions in this business for women and people of color?
I’m not 100% sure if I’ve been around long enough to fully articulate on that issue, but from what I could see, there are a lot of wonderful people that are taking charge of making improvement in the matter of diversity. For me, as a young professional, I’ve been able to lead without feeling the weight of being different. Because of the work others around me have been doing, I’ve always felt that I belong. I’ve never felt that there was any differentiation in our industry, but again, I’m learning every day that perhaps there are ways that we can improve. I’m still learning about how we can improve.

What can you tell me about yourself? What makes you tick, what are your passions, how do you recharge your batteries, where do you go when you take a vacation?
Venue managers taking vacations? (laughs) I’m passionate about serving others. I’m always trying to find ways of making the world around me a better place, as cliché as that sounds. When I do vacation, I’m usually trying to get out of the country or go somewhere that I haven’t been before; going on little adventures and seeing the world from a different perspective. Of course, it’s not very often that we get to do that, especially not right now. So mostly, I recharge by listening to music. Music has always been a bit of a passion for me, so I can sit around the house for hours and usually my weekends are consumed by listening to music.

Where are some places that you’ve traveled to that are your favorites and what type of music do you enjoy most?
Brazil captured my heart. I’ve gone on two trips down there. My first trip was doing mission work. I helped build a multipurpose facility, which was amazing to me because I think we brought together four or five indigenous tribes, plus a group of Portuguese-speaking individuals and a group of English-speaking Brazilians. It was interesting because it brought together all these different cultures of individuals who all lived within a 100-mile radius of each other but had never really connected previously. Not only that, just to see the textbook definition of walking around in loin cloths and things they had created from the earth. It was amazing to me. That was my first taste of Brazil. My second trip, I went down there on business with my master’s program. I have an MBA from UF and we went down to Rio and Sao Paulo and it was amazing because it was city life. It was the Miami of Brazil and the New York of Brazil and to see how different that was compared to my first trip when we didn’t have hot running water for most of the trip. It was night and day. It was amazing how diverse the culture is down there and they are just fantastic people and the food was amazing. That’s my advertisement. Visit Brazil if you haven’t been down there.

What kind of music is your favorite?
I listen to just about anything. Right now, I’ve been really into the Teskey Brothers. Good vibes; very uplifting. I’m really digging them right now.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I’ll be over the age of 30 (laughs). I would hope at that point I will be either in an assistant or associate director role or moving into a director’s role. Not sure if that will be in an arena or in a performing arts facility, but hoping that I’m still able to help events come to life. I know things are kind of weird right now because of COVID, but I do see the industry coming back and it will come back stronger than ever and I’m hoping that I can play a role in taking charge and leading whatever facility I might be in.  


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